leadership dot #3942: holding out

Yesterday, I was contacted by someone looking to hire me to present a workshop on four different days in June. The organization had set dates and times and was not only unwilling to alter any of them, but they insisted on having the same facilitator for all four days, even though it was for different audiences.

The intermediary who called me was available for three of the four dates; ditto for me, although with a different conflict. We could easily have made it work for them and provided a great experience, but their inflexibility has left them without a presenter two weeks from when it is necessary.

I am all for holding out to get what you truly want — while it’s reasonable — but at some point, you need to become a bit more pragmatic and adjust your expectations to align with more realistic options. This principle applies not only to this booking but to many other situations. Being rigid with your parameters or holding out too long for the ideal may leave you with a sub-par result if luck isn’t on your side. The sooner you can be flexible, the more alternatives you’ll have.

leadership dot #3912: empowered

I recently facilitated a session about supervising college students. One of the feedback comments said that they wished I would have told more stories about the problems I had with student employees and how I resolved them. The truth is, I don’t have that many stories to share — about problems with students or professional employees — largely due to how I was clear about expectations right from the start.

I am reminded of a story that Michelle Obama shared about how her mother gave her an alarm clock when she started kindergarten. Mrs. Robinson taught her daughter how to use it; she worked with her to consider all that had to be done in the morning so Michelle knew what time to set it, and then she empowered her to use it. No nagging, no hounding, no problem stories to share.

I have said before that I think supervisors cause as many problems as employees do because they don’t have ongoing conversations about responsibilities or performance. But if you set people up for success by giving them the clarity and tools they need, my experience has been that most will rise to achieve. Start from that premise.

leadership dot #3876: just right

I had lunch with two friends who are both parents of high schoolers. While we were there, one received a text informing her of a few errands her daughter was doing after school. “I don’t need to know all this detail,” she said to us. “I wish she would just tell me that she’ll be home at 5 pm.”

The other mother retorted with the opposite view. “I wish I knew that kind of detail,” she said. “Sometimes my son leaves to pick up friends and I don’t know where he has gone or when he’ll be back.”

The difference in perspective was an illustration of what it’s like to work for different bosses. Some — including those who aren’t micromanagers — want to know the specifics that may impact their work or other obligations. Others prefer to know the end result and feel no need to be informed about the steps along the way.

Neither approach is better than the other but it’s helpful for you as an employee (and as a child!) to know what level of information your supervisor is comfortable having. There is no need to annoy with too much or too little information when a conversation about expectations can enlighten you for all your communication going forward.

leadership dot #3802: happy endings

‘Tis the season — for holiday movies! We all know about the cultish following of the Hallmark Channel Christmas movies but they are not alone. The Samsung channel promotes 1000 titles in its holiday collection and every other streaming service has a catalog of seasonally-themed films. You could watch 24/7 from now until next Christmas.

The problem is that all of these movies have the same ending — a happy one. The constant barrage of fantasy creates unrealistic expectations and adds to the levels of sadness or depression many feel during this time of year. On television, everyone gets the prince or the pony; the business is saved, or it all works out — but as we know, it’s not like that in reality.

Amidst all the holiday cheer, remember that your friends, family, and colleagues aren’t living the movie. Not everyone is happy this season; in fact, some are quite the opposite. Don’t make inferences about holiday plans, assume there is happiness, or pack schedules with yet another joy-sharing occasion. Sometimes, a silent day is as warranted as a Silent Night.

leadership dot #3787: turnaround

The hiring of Matt Rhule as the new University of Nebraska football coach isn’t something that would normally catch my attention — but then I saw he was given an eight-year contract. That caught my eye!

Nebraska used to be one of the premier programs in the country but has certainly lost its luster in modern times. They have amassed five national championships and over 900 wins but haven’t had a championship since 1997 or even a winning record since 2016. An eight-year contract is an acknowledgment of the magnitude of the rebuild.

Kudos to Nebraska for recognizing that the turnaround won’t be quick. Too many times, the new hero is trotted in on a white horse and faces unrealistic expectations. They bubble with optimism that the new vision will soon be realized, and then everyone faces a letdown when reality sets in. In Rhule’s press conference today he was asked about bowl games and championships but replied: “We don’t have the right to talk about that today. Let’s talk about spring practice.” If only more organizations and leaders were as pragmatic.

Rhule spoke of the great senior-level support he had at Baylor and Temple that “calmed the waters” when people were restless about the speed of success and allowed the program to “eventually break through.” The length of his contract speaks to the commitment Nebraska is willing to make to do the same — and is a reminder that change agents need to cultivate the support of those in power who can protect them.

Keep an eye on the Coach Rhule story as it unfolds. It could turn out to be a case study in change management — having a clear vision of how you do things, seeking senior support up front, being realistic about a timeline, finding alignment with the needs of the organization and skills of the implementer, concentrating on player (staff) development rather than only recruiting superstars, seeking input from the players (front line staff) to gain the knowledge they have regarding issues and solutions, focusing on “what’s next” then working on the small things every day, and trusting that if you pay attention to process the wins will come. Rinse and repeat over eight years and it becomes a new day for Big Red — and any organization with the patience to rebuild its culture.

leadership dot #3754: rockets and feathers

At a recent rally, Senate candidate Admiral Mike Franken noted that gas prices follow the “rocket and feather” theory — they shoot up like a rocket and fall down like a feather. It was an interesting analogy that got me thinking about other things that have similar trajectories:

  • Expenses — that seem to go up quickly, but fall slowly when trying to make cuts or reduce costs
  • Debt — loans that are paid out all at once, but require years of chipping away at the principal
  • Weight — not that it really goes up like a rocket, but it seems to surely come off like a feather
  • Your to-do list — which can fill up quickly when presented with a new project or event yet feel like it never gets completed
  • Grief and its attending condolences — is initially fierce and intense and then well-wishers fade off like feathers

Acknowledging the flow of a rocket and feather situation can help align your mindset with the inevitable reality. Expecting a linear flow can cause you to give up or retreat too soon when the results are slow in coming. Have the patience of that feather and wait it out.

leadership dot #425a: babysitting

I had a conversation with a friend who has recently been promoted to chair of an academic department. “My job is now 10% teaching and 90% babysitting,” he said. “And I have no managerial training.”

Most of us in management positions could say the same thing — at least about the lack of training. It would be ideal to think ahead to the job skills required for the job you eventually want and do more to prepare before they are needed. It doesn’t always work that way so we start out feeling like babysitters instead of managers. What can you learn from those who tend to toddlers?

Think about the good babysitters you had when growing up. You may have cried when your parents left, but they ignored that and you got over it. They gave you some options about what to eat or what to do. They played games with you for a while, but eventually, they let you watch movies or do things on your own. They may have told your parents about some of your behaviors, but they let you get away with a few things too. They made you do some chores and didn’t do everything for you. They made you some popcorn when you were good. There are lessons from babysitting that don’t involve chasing screaming kids around the room all evening!

If you find yourself supervising people for the first time, you may feel like a babysitter, but try to move toward being a coach. Provide clear expectations and some training upfront. Keep your staff informed as much as you can; knowledge and feeling as if their voice is heard is more motivating than money. Be fair. Empower them to make choices, changes, mistakes, and grow. Listen. Share the context for decisions. Say “good job”. Let them play at different positions. Provide some different strategies after you lose.

We all grow out of the need for a babysitter. Work toward helping your staff outgrow their need for a monitor by becoming a coach. Even the pros need one of those.

Originally published in modified form on July 31, 2013


leadership dot #442a: defense


When I took driver’s ed many moons ago, I still remember our teacher’s adage to watch out for cars that were banged up or appeared to have been in an accident. He believed that more often than not it was a sign that the owner was not driving with a defensive posture. “Many accidents can be avoided if the driver is alert enough to play defense,” he said.

Undoubtedly, the parent who posted the sign in this picture was trying to help the other drivers be a little bit more careful when driving around this vehicle.

Being proactive is important, but another component of the work we all must do is more reactive. Part of driving — and part of working in an organization — is playing defense. We need to take the wheel and be alert to what others are doing in the area.

Part of your role in offense is helping others to play better defense around you. Utility trucks put cones out when they are parked. Companies use “caution” signs when the floor may be wet. Cups come with warnings about the temperature of beverages. What can you do to help those around you be aware of a situation and prevent problems before they occur?

Originally published in modified form on August 17, 2013


leadership dot #3676: queue

In Hawaii, we visited the Dole Pineapple Plantation. When we arrived, we encountered a sign warning us that the wait for tours may be up to two hours, but when we went to the entrance booth we were told that the wait was just an hour long. So, we purchased tickets and set out to visit the gift store while someone held our spot in the queue.

Only the one hour turned into two hours plus, leaving everyone hot and cranky to start our day.

If we had known the delay was that long, we wouldn’t have purchased tickets. Or, we would have bought them, then used the time to tour the gardens instead of expecting to do that after the tour. Or, we would have continued exploring on our own instead of re-convening in the line and standing in the sun for another hour.

Dole is a busy enough place to warrant a two-hour delay warning sign. But beyond that, they have done little to make their visitor experience a pleasant one. No canopy or shade for the guests waiting in line. No benches. No reservations or buzzer systems as in restaurants so people can do something besides stand in the heat while they wait. No communication with their ticket window about realistic lines. You just buy tickets on faith and then are stuck when the reality turns out to be much different. Such a missed opportunity.

The problem wasn’t the two-hour wait; the issue came in with misaligned expectations. If you have a chronic situation that is less than desirable for your clients, the best thing you can do is to be upfront about it. Sugarcoated or ignored downsides create more negative feelings than problems that are addressed directly.

leadership dot #205a: pyramids or batons

The topic of collaboration came up at our recent Cave Day meeting (dot #201). As we probed more deeply into what individuals meant by collaboration, it became clear to me that there are (at least) two distinct styles. One is like a Cirque du Soleil acrobatic pyramid–everyone is working together and they are all doing a similar function simultaneously. The other is more like a relay race, where people are working more or less independently, but all rely on each other to complete the race (project).  

If you have a different expectation as to which kind of collaboration will occur, you may be disappointed in the teamwork and effort of others. If you forget that you are in a relay race and only focus on your portion of the laps, you may fail to pay attention to the baton hand-off and set the team behind.

Collaboration takes many forms and people play different roles as part of a team. Spend some time clarifying how you expect your team to function before you climb on the back of someone who is trying to run a relay race.

Originally published in modified form on December 23, 2012